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AFD must retest 2,400 firefighter candidates after test questions leaked

Friday, May 20, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The Austin Fire Department will be retesting some 2,400 applicants for its firefighter academy after learning that the questions and scoring grid of the structured oral interview portion of the process had been leaked. At a hastily arranged news conference Thursday, AFD Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said a copy of the test was sent to her office and the office of Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald Tuesday anonymously, along with a letter criticizing the department’s diversity efforts.

The letter also implies that the test questions and grid may have been provided to some applicants before the test was administered, thereby compromising the integrity of the testing process.

“The only thing we were able to do was to ascertain that it was actually the correct document,” Kerr said yesterday. “We have not been able to ascertain or corroborate that indeed the process was compromised or that somebody had those documents or had an unfair advantage. But in the interest of being fair and in the interest of being sure that everybody has an equal opportunity and equal access and has the opportunity for fair treatment, we are going to discard the structured oral interview scores that we have currently got in our process, and we will start over again.”

Kerr said the department has started an investigation along with the Austin Police Department.

Earlier this month, AFD conducted structured oral interviews with approximately 2,400 candidates vying for one of the 120 positions currently vacant in the department. The process took 10 days.

“It would have been about 35 people in the cadet class, and that was a class that we would have hoped to start in late June. Because of this it will be delayed to maybe late August or early fall,” Kerr said.

Kerr said that, after consulting with McDonald, she had decided to discard the results of the interview process and develop a new one that can “be administered within a reasonable time period.” All 2,400 of the candidates were informed of the situation yesterday; all will have to redo the oral interview portion of the test if they want to continue in the process. 

A date for the retesting has not been set, but department officials anticipate it will take place no earlier than four weeks from now.

The city has also been in contact with I/O Solutions, the Chicago-based consulting firm that developed the original test for AFD. Kerr said the company was sympathetic to the department’s situation and had agreed to supply a new oral interview process at cost, or $10,000.

The city has already paid I/O Solutions nearly $118,000.

However, paying that extra money could turn out to be less painful for the city than finding more people to do the actual interviewing. The first time around, AFD had to round up 48 volunteers willing to work for 10 days in a row, getting paid only in lunch, to conduct the interviews. Provided no applicants drop out, the same number of volunteers will be needed for the next round of interviews.

Kerr said that 58 people had access to the documents.

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